Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market opened two stores in Gainesville Wednesday to cheerleaders, high school bands and jazz musicians.
Customers also showed up amid the fanfare, rolling carts through the aisles of the stores at 1435 Thompson Bridge Road and 2892 Browns Bridge Road.
The Neighborhood Market is a slimmed-down, grocery-focused version of the warehouse-style superstores that Wal-Mart usually has built.
“I’m so glad to see a food place come here,” said Ann Bailey, who lives in Cresswind at Lake Lanier, a short distance from the Browns Bridge store.
“I’m legally blind, but I do have a golf cart and (wish) they could make the sidewalks wide enough where I could come in my golf cart,” she said.
Officials also held ribbon-cutting ceremonies to mark the stores’ openings.
“I want (this) to not be just a grocery store,” said Jeff Stover, manager of the Thompson Bridge Road store. “I want to be involved in this community and be part of its daily activities.
“I think it’s important for a store, especially a Wal-Mart, to come in and help people in the community so we can save money and live better.”
Gainesville City Councilman Sam Couvillon, speaking at the Thompson Bridge opening, said, “Wal-Mart has proven to be a good partner for our community.”
He said the new stores have boosted the tax base and area employment.
“A lot of times when I’m going through the zoning process, you hear about the negatives of Wal-Mart,” Couvillon said. “And one of the things you hear about is the workforce, the jobs.
“You would be amazed at the number of people who have worked for Wal-Mart 10-plus years and given even 20, 25 years of service. If it was that bad of a place to work, I don’t think you would see people working those kind of tenures.”
The stores, particularly the one at Thompson Bridge, stirred much speculation and resident opposition when projects were announced in 2014 and even before it was known the retail giant was involved.
Early on, all that was known was that grocery stores and fueling stations would fuel redevelopment of Lanier Plaza and Lanier Commons shopping centers on Thompson Bridge and Browns Bridge roads, respectively.
Residents of neighborhoods near Lanier Plaza turned out at City Council meetings to voice their opposition to the redevelopment.
They even held protests and worked with business owners there to fight the project.
Quality of life issues, such as traffic and environmental impacts, the eviction of small businesses in the shopping center and the prospect of declining property values, were among the concerns raised.
The traffic concern for residents at the Thompson Bridge store did play out Wednesday morning as shoppers had long waits getting back on the road and northbound motorists tried to turn left into the store.
A traffic light is planned at the store, connecting with Taco Bell across the street, Wal-Mart representatives have said.
Word was the light would be activated sometime after the grand opening, but there were no signs of construction this week and officials could provide no additional details.
Gainesville officials have said they prefer the light to be put at Virginia Circle just north of the shopping center, where, according to City Manager Kip Padgett, it would “serve the greater need.”
Stan Aiken, the city’s senior civil engineer, said in an email that the city is requesting an engineering study be done within one year to determine if the signal is “justified under existing traffic.”
If it isn’t, the city would ask the Georgia Department of Transportation to remove the signal, he said.